The story of Shaker Aamer reveals a great deal about contemporary Britain. Forty-eight years old, he is a native of Saudi Arabia. In the mid-1990s he arrived in Britain, and met and married Zinnira Siddique, which gave him the right to stay indefinitely in the country. In 2001 he and his wife and their three young children moved to Kabul in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban were already well-known pioneers of armed Islamism, but Shaker Aamer asks to be believed when he says he went to Afghanistan for the sake of living “a simple life.” According to American intelligence, this simple life actually consisted of fighting for al-Qaeda. When bin Laden fled to Pakistan, Aamer went too, but also asks to be believed that this was just a journey that had nothing to do with al-Qaeda.
Captured a few months after 9/11, Aamer was flown to Guantanamo, and there he stayed for 13 years. No official that I know of has explained the failure throughout that time to put him on trial. A reason must exist: perhaps intelligence had to protect its sources, witnesses were unreliable, and of course he may have been the victim of injustice. Guantanamo personnel say he was a cheerleader organizing hunger strikes, “a mastermind” for the hundreds of other Islamists there. Captured al-Qaeda documents instruct prisoners in American hands to assert as a routine that they are tortured. Sure enough, Aamer further asks to be believed that he has been the victim of persistent torture. Moreover, he says that British intelligence agents took part in torturing him.
Very few people in Britain would think of Aamer as British rather than Saudi. Yet large parts of the media, left as well as right, have found common ground in a campaign for his release. Instead of asking whether Aamer’s account of his ill-treatment is the whole truth and nothing but the truth, the media prefer to present him as a Briton suffering injustice at American hands. The Daily Mail, for instance, notionally a conservative newspaper, day after day takes for granted American beastliness and Aamer’s innocence. Arriving in England after his release, he met his wife and children at the airport. The gushing sentimentality of the press reports of this occasion is a contrast to the silence that greets soldiers returning from duty in Afghanistan.
The time when the British could have defended themselves on their own in the field are long gone. A British Guantanamo is unimaginable, and therefore it becomes natural to resent the Americans for doing what the British no longer can. The case of Aamer shows appeasement degrading into capitulation, and capitulation into anti-Americanism. But there is more. Lawyers are at work, making sure to spin via willing journalists that Aamer is “a threat to no one,” and letting it be known that they will be suing the British government on his behalf. Other former Guantanamo prisoners have been paid 1 million pounds — out of court, what’s more, ex gratia compensation. All Aamer has to do is stick to his story, and he is set up for life. The government will be exposed either as wicked or feeble, and there are 30 pieces of silver in it for the lawyers.